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Top 7 sales lessons from the Oscars

Put yourself in the audience's seat


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You already know who won the Oscar’s major categories, but do you know who won the award for Best…or Worst Presenter?  Or the Best “Addressing the Elephant in the Room?”

First of all, I applaud all the presenters. I know many people in business (myself included) who would rather present to 1,000 strangers than five people they work with. But the Oscars provide a great setting to understand what works when presenting, what doesn’t and why. It’s a vast collection of mini-presentations and monologues given in front of a live and virtual audience with short attention spans and tight time constraints. Sounds like a typical business presentation to me!

Here are the results of my third annual Oscar Presenter Awards and the sales takeaways.

Best “Addressing the Elephant in the Room:” Chris Rock

With his first line, “Welcome to the white people’s choice awards,” Chris Rock took on the negative press about the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees. He handled a sensitive subject that had received major press the weeks leading up the Oscars with bold humor. While the initial speech worked, the theme quickly ran away with top billing. Like Neil Patrick Harris who addressed this same issue during last year’s Academy Awards, starting with the line, “Tonight, we honor the best and the whitest…”  Chris could have acknowledged the issue early and then quickly moved on, but I applaud his effort.

Worst “Addressing the Elephant in the Room:” Stacey Dash

Can you say “awkward?”  Anytime you make your audience uncomfortable you have clearly crossed over a line.  Whoever proposed this idea should be forced to watch 24 hours of Ted 2.  And Stacey Dash, what were you thinking by agreeing to do this?

Sales Takeaway:  Don’t ignore the fact that your audience has a negative perception or closed mind is not a winning strategy in sales. Address it early on so your proposal has a fair shot of being heard.

Best Use of a Higher Message: Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Actor

Ever since Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather accept his Oscar to protest the treatment of Indians in our country, we’ve come to expect one, maybe two Oscar recipients to use the platform to shed light on a key issue. This year the field was crowded but Leo did an exceptional job by smoothly tying it into his movie, “The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the world,” and his personal experience of having to travel to the farthest southern point to find snow during filming: “Climate change is real.”

Worst use of a Higher Message:  Sam Smith, Best Original Song

Though he wanted to shine a light on the LGBT community, it came off as self-congratulatory and he screwed up his facts (see below.)

Sales Takeaway:  Make sure you know what the one thing you want your audience to remember after your leave is and appropriately tie it into your message. Trying to shed light on too many ideas or presenting them in an unrelated way can confuse your audience.

Best Eye Contact: Alejandro Innaritu, Best Director

Granted, the director of The Revenant had multiple opportunities to practice his acceptance speech but he exhibited a strong command of the stage and ability to connect with the audience, most noticeably with his eye contact. When calling out individual contributors, like Leo and Tom, he made direct eye contact with them as he spoke.

Worst Eye Contact: László Nemes, Best Foreign Foreign Language Film

The director of the Hungarian Son of Saul had eyes that darted from one side of the room to another, often during the same sentence.  His attempt to speak to an entire room at once was distracting and made it difficult to focus on his message.

Sales Takeaway.
Eye contact is an area presenters often take for granted and fail to practice or even think about. How you use it depends on the size of the audience and the layout of the room, so put some thought in to it ahead of time. For a larger group, don’t make the mistake of trying to spread your attention too wide or too quickly or you will appear uncertain or worse, untrustworthy. Focus on one person or section of your audience long enough to complete a thought, and then move on.

Best Team Presentation: Tina Fey and Steve Carell

Hard not to like these two together, but that aside, their performance was a great example of teamwork. They each had worked out clearly defined roles and they were fully committed to them: Straight man vs. Funny woman.  One didn’t totally dominate, as so often happens in team presentations.

Worst Team Presentation:  Sacha Baron Cohen and Oliva Wilde

This could have been called the Sacha Baron Cohen Monologue as Oliva Wilde seemed to do nothing but serve as eye candy. Controversial Ali G, aka, Sacha was well into character and never seemed to be aware that he was part of a team as Olivia looked on uncertain whether to be amused or shocked.

Sales Takeaway:
Clearly define your roles in a team presentation. Go over your plans with your team mate.  Don’t surprise each other with sudden shifts in direction or riffs on topics. Rehearse together and create signals so you can help each other out.

Best Audience Interaction: Chris Rock

Selling Girl Scout cookies to the live Oscar audience was a clever and unexpected juxtaposition of the everyday with the super-elite crowd (several of whom looked as if they’d never seen a Girl Scout cookie before) and it helped us connect to Chris Rock as just a regular dad trying to help out his girls. The best part was the big reveal:  $600 in sales the prior year vs. $64,000!

Sales Takeaway:  Audience interaction is now a standard element of the Oscars, just as it should be a standard element in your presentation.  With today’s dropping attention spans, you need to introduce variety and interaction early in your presentation to keep your audience fully engaged.

Best Acceptance Speech:  Mary Rylance, Best Supporting Actor

What can often become a boring and disjointed list of “thank-you’s” turned into a humble, humorous, and meaningful speech by Mark Rylance. From an intriguing opening “I’ve always adored stories” to a humorous way to thank Tom Hanks “If you ever wondered whether acting with Tom Hanks would help, the answer is clearly yes.”

Worst Acceptance Speech:  Sam Smith, Best Original Song

The intention was admirable, but Sam Smith incorrectly stating that he could be the first openly gay winner led to laughter and an explosion in the Twitterverse. He based this statement on second-hand information – an article with Ian McKellen, and then only made matters worse by adding a wishy-washy “if this is the case, or even if it isn’t I want to dedicate this award to the LGBT community.” In the end, I bet most people will remember the Sam Smith gaffe as opposed to his win.

Sales Takeaway:

Great idea to start with a unique statement, but avoid sounding smug and always check your facts. In a world of Google and Siri, there is no reason to spout off unsupportable facts. If you’re going to use statistics or facts in your presentation, be prepared to defend them.

Best Presenter Award:  Louis C.K. for Best Documentary Short

Louis CK made the most of a typically over-looked award that audiences. While having fun with it, “This award is going home in a Honda Civic” he gave the award true context and meaning “this award can actually change lives.” While it appeared extemporaneous and fresh, I’m certain Louis spent a fair amount of time crafting and practicing it to deliver it with pitch perfect timing.

Worst Presenter Award:  Sarah Silverman, Introducing the Writings on the Wall

She hadn’t seen the movie, gave no background on the song or its makers, and touted the fact that she was saying “whatever came to her.” This presentation was pure self-indulgence and an unfortunate prelude for all those who worked so hard to create it.

Sales Takeaway:

Even if you think your subject speaks for itself, giving it context and details that highlight its importance is always recommended. Presentations are not about you.  Put yourself in your audience’s seat and give your material the “so what?” test.  Doesn’t pass?  Drop it.

Do you agree?  What other categories do you have from this year’s Oscars and how can you apply them to your presentation?

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Julie Hansen

Julie Hansen, author of Sales Presentations for Dummies, helps sales and business executives craft and deliver winning presentations and demos by applying today’s best practices from business, acting, improv, and storytelling. Julie’s techniques for leveraging proven performance skills in presentations have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM and Oracle, as well as local Colorado companies. Learn more about sales workshops and keynotes at  PerformanceSalesandTraining.com, start a sales conversation at Julie@actingforsales.com  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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